By Bala Menon
The Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry (Kochi) is the oldest functioning synagogue in the Commonwealth today - and considered one of the most beautiful. It was, therefore, fitting that when Queen Elizabeth II made an official visit to India in October 1997, she kept aside some six hours to make a maiden visit to Cochin and its synagogue. The British press reported that the Queen had heard so much about the Jews of Cochin that she insisted her aides arrange this out-of-the-way itinerary.
Press reports at the time said that security was extremely tight in Cochin (Kochi) that day (October 17) with "strict controls on the movement of people two hours before Her Majesty's arrival in the city," the city Police Commissioner Jacob Thomas was quoted as saying.
British personnel were to take care of the personal security of the Queen and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh - especially after some organizations planned to hold protests against her visit to the tomb of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama at the St Francis Church in the city, the oldest European church in India.
(She did visit the St Francis church and Vasco da Gama's tomb and heard a prayer in Malayalam by the church choir. She saw a palm leaf title deed of the church dating back to 1503, and the 18th century Dutch marriage register kept in the church, which is managed by the Church of South India, a sister church of the Anglican church.) The roads were, of course, blocked off by the Rapid Action Force and Kerala Armed Police.
The Kerala visit went off without any trouble with the Queen arriving at Cochin Naval Airport around noon and heading straight to the Taj Malabar Hotel for a lunch hosted by then Governor Sukhdev Singh Kang and a Mohiniyattam dance performance. (Only nine people, including the late Kerala Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar and his wife were introduced to the Queen at the time.)
The Queen then drove to the Paradesi synagogue in a military green Range Rover without any number plates - flying the Indian and British flags. She was welcomed at the synagogue by then warden Sammy Hallegua and his wife Queenie, representing the Jews from Cochin and Ernakulam.
"The Queen fell in love immediately with the blue porcelain tiles in the synagogue. She said it was a shame to walk on it," Queenie Hallegua told reporters later, referring to the 18th century hand-painted tiles imported from Canton (Guangdong) in China. "The Queen later told her sister Princess Margaret that when she went to India, she had to go and visit the Jewish synagogue in Cochin," which, of course Princess Margaret did later.
On behalf of the Cochin Jews, Sammy Hallegua presented the Queen with several gifts, including a silver salver, a replica of the 1000-years-old copper plates granted by Kerala's fabled emperor Cheraman Perumal to the Jews, an album of photographs, copies of valuable documents and a hand-stitched satin cap. On behalf of the people of the United Kingdom, the Queen then presented a silver Kiddush (wine) cup to the synagogue.
She was also shown the silver Torah cases and the gold and jewel-encrusted crown given to the synagogue by the Maharaja of Travancore in 1805. Queen Elizabeth signed the Visitors' Book and later greeted members of the Cochini Jewish congregation.
Later, the Queen made a brief halt at the Pepper Futures Exchange in Mattancherry and at a British-aided urban poverty alleviation project at Mini Colony.
Talking about pepper, we can quote here a paragraph from Salman Rushdie's famous book "The Moor's Last Sigh" - "I repeat: the pepper, if you please; for if it had not been for peppercorns, then what is ending now in East and West might never have begun. Pepper it was that brought Vasco da Gama's tall ships across the ocean, from Lisbon's Tower of Belm to the Malabar Coast: first to Calicut and later, for its lagoony harbour, to Cochin. English and French sailed in the wake of that first-arrived Portugee, so that in the period called Discovery-of-India-but how could we be discovered when we were not covered before?-we were 'not so much sub-continent as sub-condiment', as my distinguished mother had it. 'From the beginning, what the world wanted from bloody Mother India was daylight-clear,' she'd say. 'They came for the hot stuff, just like any man calling on a tart."
|Queen Elizabeth II is received by Queenie Hallegua and Sammy Hallegua.|
|Sammy Hallegua escorts the Queen into the Synagogue.|
|The Queen presents a silver wine cup to the synagogue.|
|A history in pictures --- looking through the synagogue album.|
|The ancient Torah scrolls and one of the gold crowns|
|Greeting members of the Cochini Jewish community.|
|Community members arriving at the synagogue.|
|Babu Josephai of Ernakulam's Kadavumbhagam Synagogue with his family.|
|Replica of the ancient copper plates dating to 1000 AD.|
|The Queen's signature in the Visitors' Book.|